Credit: Keith Barraclough

The Super Bowl isn’t the only big game on Sunday. Animal Planet’s Puppy Bowl IX premieres at 3 p.m. ET, and the hedgehog cheerleaders and aren’t the only new additions. There’s more cameras than ever before — in the puppy hot tub and embedded in the chew toys. For the second year, actor and voice-over artist Dan Schachner (who voices promos for Showtime’s Shameless) suited up as The Ref. How does one get this job, and what does it entail? We asked him.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’d hosted specials for Animal Planet before, and when you heard the job of Puppy Bowl referee was open, you made a bold move.

DAN SCHACHNER: I took that audition as a personal challenge. I’ve been an actor for 12 years, but always done very traditional auditions. Animal Planet knew of me, but they weren’t sure I’d be an appropriate ref. They had their doubts, so I put them at ease. Most auditions are a minute, minute-and-a-half, I think I made a 5-minute tape, all done on my silly little iPhone and edited on my little Mac computer. I showed myself doing everything that a ref could possibly do to prepare for the big game. So, I drove out to my sister’s house on Long Island, she has a bunch of dogs, and did scrimmages in the backyard with the puppies, and showed what it would be like if I was actually trying to train dogs to prep for the big game. I showed me dealing with my own pets and trying to scrimmage with my two little boys. It was probably overkill, but I wanted to leave nothing to chance. I wanted this job.

How do you really prepare for game day?

It’s a two-day process. We shot it back in November. One day is devoted to the kitten halftime show and the promos and opens and closes that we do, but the other full day is devoted to the Puppy Bowl itself. That’s a full-day of shooting, 10 or 12 hours, to create a two-hour show. So for me, I have to be alert that entire time on so many levels. It’s not just one set of puppies that come in, it’s several sets of puppies that are rotated in and out of that playing field. I’m the only constant on the field. It sounds funny, but I make sure I get lots of sleep, that I eat well, that I’m healthy. [Laughs] I also do look at past game footage. I look at past moves, and things that we’ve allowed in the past, and what we’re not going to allow this year. I talk to the director who’s in the control room about the types of fouls that we’re going to call and how we’re gonna run the day. Last year was my rookie year, so in the beginning, like any rookie would, I would call fouls every time I saw them. But I learned this year to start to pick my battles a little bit. You can’t foul them every time they pee. Puppies are gonna pee. Puppies are also gonna nap. Puppies are also gonna want to eat. Those are essentially the three things that they love doing all day long. So you really have to just call the most egregious fouls.

You throw a flag for “excessive cuteness.” How do you decide when it’s excessive?

Exactly. As I say, pick your battles. They’re all cute in their own way. I’ve got to look at what’s excessively cute. The way I look at it, it’s always got to be a multiple situation — it’s never one dog that can get penalized for being excessively cute. That would just blow up his ego way too big. It’s got to be several dogs, usually three or more, doing something unbelievably cute, which I define as cuddling or doing that thing where dogs rub their noses together. It’s got to be that level of cuteness. And again, nobody’s relieving themselves — nobody’s doing anything that would make you think anything other than ‘cute.’

You also call a time out for napping. Then you hit the turf and the puppies descend on you. Is that your favorite moment?

My favorite moment is actually the first step out on to the field. The National Anthem, the promise and potential of all these dogs. I also appreciate it because that first step, the field is actually 100 percent clean and it’s the cleanest it’s gonna be all day.

As the ref, do you have to clean up messes, or does someone else take care of that?

They have a team. But now, I should also say, it’s not beneath me. So if it’s in front of me, and it’s just easier for me to do it because I’m the only human on the field — which I often am — I will pick that stuff up, no problem. Sometimes it’s on the other side of the field, or sometimes it’s so, um, impressive, that I can’t get to it by myself. That’s too much information, I know.

But very nicely put. There’s only one touchdown in the first half this year.

That’s normal for us. Touchdowns are hard. Just like in regular football, it’s a big deal when a touchdown is scored. Especially in this case, you’d think it’d be easy for a little toy to be dragged into an end zone, but most of the time, these puppies just want to pull that toy apart and run it around the field.

Does anyone ever encourage them to come to an end zone?

I’m not allowed to do anything, but what happens is, they do have their handlers, the animal trainers and people from the humane society, and they help out. So if they want to at least see a puppy running toward the end zone, they’ll position them on the other side of the field and call to them. Sometimes that works. But remember, these are puppies who are between eight and 15 weeks old. They’re not fully-trained obedient dogs who are going to do everything you say.

And what do people usually say to you when you tell them you’re the Puppy Bowl referee. It is an unusual job to have.

It is. Well, it’s great when you run into someone who hasn’t heard of Puppy Bowl, which is becoming rarer and rarer with every year. But their look is like, ‘You’re what? Sorry?’ That’s the best part, describing what it is to people who have no idea: This is an actual football game, played by dogs, that airs during the Super Bowl. For people who do know the show, they’re somewhat impressed, I guess. I think the reality of the situation is that they don’t care about me, they care about these beautiful puppies, and that’s okay. I’ve just got to get over that for my own ego.

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